Carry Me Home Tim Noonan The cottontail cautiously came to a rest at the bank.

Several moments passed before the brown-grey statue, confident that the area was safe, lowered his head to sip from the slow moving creek. SPLASH! The rabbit took off and disappeared into the trees, much less concerned now with the rustle from the fallen leaves then it had been on its approach. Tommy watched the ripples where the rock had hit, then looked back to where the cottontail had disappeared. He let out a sigh. Jen leaned forward, turned a disapproving look to John. ³Sorry,´ he offered with a shrug and returned his gaze forward. The three friends sat on the log for another silent minute. Somewhere a bird warbled. A blackbird? Tommy wondered as he raised his eyes to the sky. It was getting dark. It was starting to happen earlier and earlier. And the air was growing cold. He guessed it to be after 5 o¶clock by now. ³Let¶s go see Mike,´ he spoke to himself with a nod. He stood up and started towards the creek. Jen dutifully followed in step. John rubbed his temple, smudging it with dirt from the rock. ³I wasn¶t trying to hit it.´ ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Silence followed the three as they wound their way through the forest trail. They came to a clearing and their footsteps slowed, then stopped in silent agreement as each stood still to reflect on the place. Tommy smiled at the giant oak with exposed knotted roots. ³God that hurt.´ John smiled, his mind having gone to the same place. Jen admonished, ³You guys were so dumb.´ ³Hey, you were playing too,´ John reminded her as they closed the distance and he put a hand on the trunk, ³Your castle, Princess.´ ³Stay away, dragons.´ She grabbed a low branch as Tommy helped her jump up. ³I was a dragon; Tommy was your knight in shining armor.´ She smiled down at the boys. ³That¶s right. The brave knight who slayed the evil dragon. I gave him my veil as reward. Remember?´ ³You made him climb up to get it. And he slipped,´ John laughed. ³Umm, I believe the dragon came back to life and pushed him,´ Jen countered. ³Oh, right.´ ³Caught my ankle right there,´ he recalled with surprising fondness. ³You guys were so dumb - crutches for two months!´ ³But I had the veil. So worth it,´ he gave her a wink. He had secretly treasured that pink scarf. He¶d dig it out from the bottom dresser drawer from time to time. He had been holding it when he called Jen to ask her to the semi-formal dance

last spring. It was his talisman, a reminder of the girl who was an enigma to him ± one of the boys but who would take his breath away with just a glance. It somehow always brought him comfort or gave him luck when he held it. He had held the pink scarf after hearing that Mike was being sent home. He checked his phone. They understood and turned to go. At the edge of the meadow, Tommy stopped. ³What I remember most about that day is how you two helped carry me home. Mike drove me to the hospital, after you two carried me home. We were 8 and you carried me home.´ John put a hand on his shoulder. ³And we always will.´ Tommy patted the hand, smiled at Jen, and stepped back into the woods. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------They came to the paved road just as dusk turned to night. ³I could go for some Mary¶s right about now,´ John motioned to the billboard across the street. A woman dressed like a waitress from the µ50s held out an enticing looking chocolate shake and juicy burger. ³Maybe after,´ Tommy offered. The three friends began walking on the shoulder. They passed a small strip mall. And once again, their heads turned in unison to look at the little liquor store flanked by the greeting card shop and pizza place. ³Mike¶s a good brother,´ Jen reflected. ³He looked like he was gonna kill Kevin McDougal,´ John added. ³Naw, he was just trying to scare him.´ Tommy thought about Kevin handing him a bottle in a brown bag. John and Jen had refused to take a sip, but Tommy was seriously considering it when a hand had snatched the bottle and thrown it into the dumpster. ³Remember how Kevin started demanding that Mike pay for the bottle of Jack?´ John chuckled. ³He pulled out a stapler and started waving it around at us.´ ³He was drunk.´ ³After a minute he realized who he was talking too,´ Jen said proudly. Mike had just returned from boot camp. His USMC t-shirt and crew cut finally sank in to the scummy 19 year old with the fake ID. ³He never messed with elementary school kids again.´ John also spoke with pride. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------When they turned right on Willow Avenue, Tommy stumbled. He could see the house. Jen put his arm around his waist. John caught up and stood by his side, ³We can go back. Or stay here as long as you need.´ The tears finally came. They put their arms around him. They all cried together: three friends on the sidewalk across from Murphy Funeral Home. ³He was a hero,´ Jen whispered into his ear. Tommy nodded. He ventured a look across the street again, saw two Marines walking out with caps in hands.

He took a deep gulp of the cold air and stood upright. He knew he would miss Mike, but he also knew that his friends would stand by him to the end. And there was comfort in that. Mike would live on in their hearts and memories. And his friends would always carry him home. He took Jen¶s hand, ³Let¶s go see Mike.´

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